Activate the Collection @ Asia Art Archive 活化館藏──亞洲藝術文獻庫

Text by: Jo and Kayo
Chinese summary by: Bruce


On July 6th, Jo and Kayo paid a visit to Asia Art Archive (AAA). AAA is an independent, non-profit organization in Hong Kong that collects and documents the history of contemporary Asian art by collecting monographs, documents and other types of archival materials. They also develop programs to make the collection accessible to the public. Below they co-write a reflection on their visit. 

Just some of the eclectic treasures to be found on the shelves of the Asia Art Archive.


As a librarian at a specialized art and design university, I wanted to visit AAA to learn more about what kind of collection they have by conducting an expert interview with key staff members. An expert interview is one of the activities of the UX Library Toolkit, which my team and I at SCAD Hong Kong are using to build a special collection. The aim of the expert interview is to learn from experts and gain an understanding of how an archive/library with a specialized collection works at a higher level. The interview also offers a chance to discuss best practices and trends. Specifically, I wanted some insight about their collection development criteria, and the decision making process when it comes to nominating artists to include in their collection.

Jo and I met with Elaine Lin, Collections Manager, and David Smith, Head of Digital. They were very approachable and passionate about what they do at AAA. When asked how they determine which artists are significant enough to collect, Elaine explained that AAA is not really focused on individual artists, but rather, they investigate and research particular content areas and collect items on those areas/themes. AAA has four content priority areas: exhibition history, art pedagogy, performance art and artist-run space. Once they have a collection, then they "activate the collection" by developing programs to promote the collection and educate the public. Promoting collections and opening them to the public means the collection grows as more people become aware of its importance, which may encourage other artists and collectors to make donations to AAA. The expert interview was conducted casually, as the four of us sat and had a conversation. It was very positive, and I am inspired by their approach to collection development. I will also activate the collection as my team and I build our special collection.   

Workstation with a great view @ Asia Art Archive 

Workstation with a great view @ Asia Art Archive 


I am the subject librarian for the School of Creative Media (SCM) at City University of Hong Kong, and so I was keen to find out more about AAA's collection and what resources they have that I might recommend to staff and students in my own institution. I was really impressed at the scale of the collection and archiving efforts at AAA. Elaine explained that what makes the collection unique (but also challenging to maintain) is the scope of what they collect. Their mission to collect "recent history of contemporary art in Asia" sounds simple at first, but when you unpack it the potential collection and archive is vast. Essentially, they collect materials about artists and art movements produced in Asia, but also materials by Asian artists produced in other regions, as well as international artists producing material about Asian art. It's enormous! Of course such a broad reaching collection includes a huge range of not only languages but dialects, which is a challenge for staff at AAA. While their staff speak a range of languages, it is impossible to have staff that speak every language represented in the collection. 

During the visit I couldn't help but think about a recent project that I helped on for an SCM class: a Wikipedia edit-a-thon. The edit-a-thon required students to create Wikipedia pages about contemporary female artists in the Asia region. Many of the students relied on the limited information they could find online, and a few made use of CityU Library's online and physical collection. CityU Library collects books and electronic resources to support teaching and learning in the field of the arts, but the collection of AAA is much, much larger and more specific. Next time, I will definitely recommend the students visit AAA as well! For a writing project abut bringing information on Asian artists to the web, the AAA collection is an absolute treasure trove. AAA has a strong commitment to making their collection accessible, and of course students would need to make the effort to physically visit the archive, but once they are there all that information is available right at their fingertips, rather then trawling through Google looking for scraps of information. The nature of the information retrieval behavior of many students today means that much valuable information is hidden to them ("If it's not on the internet, it doesn't exist!"), and the collection of AAA is a great example of the volume of valuable material that is simply not available online. Having said that, AAA has digitized a selection of their materials, and the online collection is growing.

During the visit we discussed how AAA and HK university and college libraries might collaborate in future, and how each institution can support and fill the gaps of each other's collections and programs. We invited AAA staff to visit both of our institutions, and we hope to arrange another HKLC visit in future for other interested librarians and LIS students.

Thank you once again to Elaine, David, and all the staff at AAA for taking the time to talk about their collection. It was great to have the opportunity to form a connection between HKLC and such a unique institution as AAA. AAA is an ambitious organization with a huge mandate to document and promote art and arts culture in Asia. We are very lucky to have this organisation in our city, and we encourage you to make a visit!